One evening around our cooking fire in southern Africa, the Environmental Shepherds of ≠Khoadi ||Hôas Conservancy got to talking about animals, and in particular the ones that we thought we most resembled. I remember that Harry chose the tiny pearl spotted owl as his personal totem, but what stands out from the rest was what the one African woman in our number had to say. Landine !Guim said she was a baboon. Had we been in America, I would have been appalled, given the horrible slur that this analogy signifies in our society. Landine surprised me with her explanation. "I am like that one" she said in her halting English, "because I am always looking under rocks to see what is there."
There are some very heavy rocks out there.
For the last couple of days, I've been looking under stones, thinking hard about how our racial values and attitudes get internalized and overcome. Does what we come from predetermine who we are or can hope to be, or are we truly masters of our own destinies? The problem with this kind of polemical choice lies in its assumptions about the nature of the problem, grounded in the old nature v. nurture dichotomy. I'm afraid a deeper understanding and any conclusion is going to require a far more complex hypothesis.
I recently heard conservative intellectual and Hoover Institution Senior Fellow Shelby Steele speaking on the radio about African American racial masking", and particularly the bargain it makes with liberal white guilt. Take a few minutes to listen.
It has been a long while since I've had my self perception on matters of race challenged so directly, and I confess there is part of me that wants to reject the message by discrediting the messenger. Shelby Steele is that most uncomfortable of liberalism's critics, a conservative African American, someone who challenges the multicultural narrative of mainstream progressives and whose motives we naturally suspect. Challenges to our deeply held beliefs and assumptions do not come from those who agree with us. They frequently come from those who once held the same beliefs, and somewhere along the way broke ranks with the dominant view.
One reviewer of Steele's work on black masking and white guilt states:
Steele asserts that the primary focus of the civil-rights era was a legitimate quest to remove racial barriers. In the shift to the black-power era, Steele sees a paradigm shift, away from racial uplift and agency, where blacks assume responsibility for themselves, to a "race is destiny" mode. As the counterculture merged with the civil-rights movement, America was exposed for its racial hypocrisy and, consequently, lost its moral authority. Here, "white guilt" became the moral framework for America. Steele argues that liberal whites embraced guilt for two reasons: to avoid being seen as racists and to embrace a vantage point where they could mete out benefits to disadvantaged blacks through programs such as affirmative action. Steele believes blacks made a deal with the devil by exchanging responsibility and control over their destiny for handouts. He sees a deficiency in black middle-class educational achievement, further raising questions about claims of lack of equal opportunity. Despite these omissions, the cultural analysis of America's loss of moral authority for its exposed racism has resonance today.
I do not know whether I can accept Steele's premise, but I also know I cannot afford to reject it out of hand. I am going to have to engage more deeply with what he has said and written, as well as with his critics, and I am going to have to take a giant step outside my mind, gain a bit of altitude, so I can test Steele's hypothesis againsts at my own understanding and experience.
I grew up at a progessive boarding school headed by my father in the Hudson Valley of New York. The academic community that nurtured me was very non racial and yet only minimally diverse in terms of race. There was a rich life of the mind in our family, and strong examples demonstrated by both of my parents that each of us has intrinsic worth, and that one person is inherently no better or worse than another. Particularly in our formative years, my younger sister and I were treated with great equanimity, and I believe as a result developed a mutual appreciation for the talents and abilities of the other without having to compete for our parents' attention or validation.
There is no denying that ours was a priviledged upbringing. In the prep school environment, the headmaster occupies a unique social position that influences not only the economic lives but also the home lives of every member of the community. My playmates might have been the children of the maintenance staff or of senior faculty members, but though I was initially unaware of it, the fact that I was the headmaster's son was not lost on their parents. Dad and I had a heart to heart when I was nearing High School age about the challenges of being the son of the headmaster as well as a student, and it must have been a relief to him when I said the idea of boarding school sounded good to me and I was looking forward to going somewhere else.
I attended the local public school until 7th grade, when the positive benefits of being connected to people of different socio-econmic backgrounds and with deeper community roots were outweighed by a precipitous decline in the quality of the education provided. Issues of class, rather than race, were most apparent in the schools I attended, but then, there were only a couple of African American families in the towns where I grew up, and fewer than 11 black students at the boarding school I attended. This did not cause me to doubt my own values and attitudes about race until college, when one day I found myself filling out a survey that arrived in my student mailbox from a campus alliance of persons of color inquiring into my experience of racial diversity. The more questions I answered, the more uncomfortable I became, for there was little in my upbringing, in the near absense of persons of color, to suggest that my own beliefs about racial equality were anything other than empty intellectualism.
When I was an undergraduate English Major, I wrote my senior thesis on William Faulkner and an idea I had that those stories he set in the Native American past were a means of getting a fresh perspective on the all consuming issue of race in which he as a white southern male was deeply implicated. My subsequent years in Africa had that effect for me.
I made myself a promise when I decided to go to Africa after college to teach English in newly-independant Namibia. I made myself promise not to try and become a "good white man" in Africa to compensate for the painful legacy of racial injustice in my own country and my own position of priviledge within it. I also accepted responsibility not to take a tour through the lives of others, not to expect absolution or take advantage of the very flattering role that the situation offered me as a priviledged English-speaking white male to be catered to as a patron who held the keys to economic and social advantage.
It is well that I was deliberate in my approach to this new experience and the lives of people who would be impacted by that choice. For the first and only time in my life I was a minority, though one with special status and priviledge that in some ways parallels my childhood as the son of the headmaster. I was the subject of great interest but also held at a distance, with people initially wearing the mask of what they wanted to appear to me. It took months and years of shared experience living together for those masks to start to lift.
During our last years in Namibia, my wife remarked to me after a visit from officials from a development NGO to the community where we lived and worked that our African friends treated these visitors far more gently and with more open expressions of friendship than they now did with us. I replied that that was because our relationship with the community had changed, and they could risk challenging, offending and being more open with us than they could with these others.
People have many layers, of course, and wear multiple masks. Matters of race and class and gender identity coexist and play off each other. We show different sides in different situations. We are not color-blind, but can we hope to be more self-aware about what we project on others, and what we expect of ourselves? More on that in a future post.